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No, We Just Can’t Have Nice Things, Can We?

This probably isn’t going to be a popular entry with some of you. But you know what? Some things just need to be said.

So, checking my bloglines, Abalieno (the Hedda Hopper of MMOs) has some surprising and disturbing news: Jeff Freeman, a designer at SOE Austin, yanked his blog after yet another “OMG LOOK WHAT HE SAID!!1!” post on the SWG forums linked to it.

Now, it quite obviously wasn’t corporate pressure that caused this – after all, SOE folks from John Smedley on down have plenty of blogs, and Raph Koster’s is probably the most visible in the industry. No, it was a feeling I’ve often felt after many an inopportune post – the feeling that your customers are using your words as a cudgel with which to beat your coworkers.

And, let me tell you. That feeling SUCKS. Working on an MMO is (and I’m trying not to be overly dramatic here ) in some ways a lot like serving in a warship during battle. You get a lot of crazy stuff crossing your desk each day, and a lot of silly stuff, and you rage a lot at pretty much everyone within arms’ reach, but at the end of the day? You are crazily loyal to your shipmates. They’re right there with you, and you rely on them to get through each day without yet another ulcer, and they rely on you the same way. And don’t get me wrong – most of the time it’s worth every pain in the gut. I really, really like reading reactions to patch notes I helped bring about and watching people go “woah, cool”. It’s why I’m on this crazy train.

And when you wax philisophic on your personal blog, as generally as you think possible, and it’s picked up and used as a stick to beat you and your coworkers with over Incredibly Important Issue #73075 on your game’s message board? That feeling SUCKS. You let your team down. They’re taking hits now and it is YOUR FAULT.

In my time at Mythic, I’ve always had the ultimate cop-out – I don’t actually work on design. I’m a coder. I fix things. Don’t get me wrong – I can pick out a WHOLE RAFT of things our players are mad about that are directly, 100% my stupid fault (and no, I’m not going to actually TELL YOU which they are, because I still have a small shred of self-preservation active) but the game’s design issues aren’t on that list. And that’s what most game message board posters care about. (Although I still can’t get through 3 pages of the VN boards without wincing and going “oof, my bad”)

So when a designer of an MMO has a blog, he’s going to take some hits just for being a designer. And when that game makes, by any measure whatever, some radical and controversial decisions about its future, that designer is going to be second- third- and fourth- guessed by players who want someone to string up and lynch for My World Gone Awry.

And you know what? Lynching isn’t in anyone’s job description. Not even the community people – after a certain point the abuse goes past a point that even they’re paid to put up with. So, without exchanging a single word with Jeff in… well… ever, I can totally understand where he’s coming from. He doesn’t want to be the stick that’s used to beat his team with.

And this is really unfortunate, because the industry NEEDS feedback, both from the players to the designers and from the designers back to the players. Hell, I’m a firm believer that the design of a game needs to be clearly communicated so that a player can actually come to the conclusion “I don’t want to be here”. I don’t want unhappy people in my game. If my game is not for you, I don’t want you to waste your time and money on something that will make you miserable. Yeah, millions of customers would be great, and yeah, it’s not the designer’s game but the players, and you know what? At the end of the day, if you’re not having fun, stop. I think I repeated that phrase 6 times in my book, and I say it two or three times every player gathering I go to. Because I believe it really strongly, and I think that the disconnect between “why am I here” and “why aren’t they listening to me” is one of the most toxic elements of any massively multiplayer community.

But players don’t want to hear that. They want to hear “you are listening to me, and you agree with me, and you’re going to do what we think is best for the game, because we know the game better than you.” (Which, most of the time, is correct, I’ll grant you.) And when they hear something different, they go absolutely ballistic.

So the next time you wonder why more MMO designers don’t have blogs, or post on message boards? Yeah. We can’t have nice things.

(Before you think this is some kind of windup for me shutting down my own blog? Yeah, my co-workers only wish I were that smart.)